Saturday, April 28, 2007

Another of those odd things I'll never publish elsewhere, so what the hell...


Scene 1: (Idyllic setting: a family is picnicking on the grass.)

ENTER Chicken Little (running): The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

(Confusion. Alarm.)


Scene 2: (A publisher’s office.)

Writer: So, if I change it so that Chicken Little’s an idiot, you’ll publish it?

Publisher: Absolutely. It can’t miss. I think it’s the next big thing, exactly what readers are looking for.

Writer: OK, then, 50-50 on film and TV, 50/50 on foreign sales, but I retain the merchandising rights.

Publisher (rising from behind his desk): It’s a deal!

(They shake hands.)

Scene 3: (Idyllic setting: a family is picnicking on the grass. One child, a girl, is playing with a Chicken Little doll. The other, a boy, with a toy gun.)

ENTER Chicken Little (running): The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

Mother: Oh, for goodness sake! We’ve read that story. What do you take us for, a bunch of morons?

Father: Yeah, go cluck yourself!

Boy: Bang! You’re dead.

Girl: Chicken Little, it’s you!

(Parents laugh.)

(The sky falls.)


Sunday, April 22, 2007

One of my photos: I call this one Free Verse Piano Solo.

Friday, April 20, 2007

I want to say so much in response to this writing by my Stonecoast colleague, poet Kazim Ali, but there's really nothing to add, so I post it here without comment.

Poetry is Dangerous
Kazim Ali

On April 19, after a day of teaching classes at Shippensburg University, I went out to my car and grabbed a box of old poetry manuscripts from the front seat of my little white beetle and carried it across the street and put it next to the trashcan outside Wright Hall. The poems were from poetry contests I had been judging and the box was heavy. I had previously left my recycling boxes there and they were always picked up and taken away by the trash department.

A young man from ROTC was watching me as I got into my car and drove away. I thought he was looking at my car which has black flower decals and sometimes inspires strange looks. I later discovered that I, in my dark skin, am sometimes not even a person to the people who look at me. Instead, in spite of my peacefulness, my committed opposition to all aggression and war, I am a threat by my very existence, a threat just living in the world as a Muslim body.

Upon my departure, he called the local police department and told them a man of Middle Eastern descent driving a heavily decaled white beetle with out of state plates and no campus parking sticker had just placed a box next to the trash can. My car has NY plates, but he got the rest of it wrong. I have two stickers on my car. One is my highly visible faculty parking sticker and the other, which I just don‚t have the heart to take off these days, says: Kerry/Edwards: For a Stronger America.

Because of my recycling the bomb squad came, the state police came. Because of my recycling buildings were evacuated, classes were canceled, campus was closed. No. Not because of my recycling. Because of my dark body. No. Not because of my dark body. Because of his fear. Because of the way he saw me. Because of the culture of fear, mistrust, hatred, and suspicion that is carefully cultivated in the media, by the government, by people who claim to want to keep us "safe."

These are the days of orange alert, school lock-downs, and endless war. We are preparing for it, training for it, looking for it, and so of course, in the most innocuous of places — a professor wanting to hurry home, hefting his box of discarded poetry — we find it.

That man in the parking lot didn‚t even see me. He saw my darkness. He saw my Middle Eastern descent. Ironic because though my grandfathers came from Egypt, I am Indian, a South Asian, and could never be mistaken for a Middle Eastern man by anyone who'd ever met one.

One of my colleagues was in the gathering crowd, trying to figure out what had happened. She heard my description — a Middle Eastern man driving a white beetle with out of state plates — and knew immediately they were talking about me and realized that the box must have been manuscripts I was discarding. She approached them and told them I was a professor on the faculty there. Immediately the campus police officer said, "What country is he from?"

"What country is he from?!" she yelled, indignant.

"Ma'am, you are associated with the suspect. You need to step away and lower your voice," he told her.

At some length several of my faculty colleagues were able to get through to the police and get me on a cell phone where I explained to the university president and then to the state police that the box contained old poetry manuscripts that needed to be recycled. The police officer told me that in the current climate I needed to be more careful about how I behaved. "When I recycle?" I asked.

The university president appreciated my distress about the situation but denied that the call had anything to do with my race or ethnic background. The spokesperson of the university called it an „honest mistake,‰ not referring to the young man from ROTC giving in to his worst instincts and calling the police but referring to me who made the mistake of being dark skinned and putting my recycling next to the trashcan.

The university's bizarrely minimal statement lets everyone know that the "suspicious package" beside the trashcan ended up being, indeed, trash. It goes on to say, "We appreciate your cooperation during the incident and remind everyone that safety is a joint effort by all members of the campus community."

What does that community mean to me, a person who has to walk by the ROTC offices every day on my way to my own office just down the hall — who was watched, noted, and reported, all in a day's work? Today we gave in willingly and whole heartedly to a culture of fear and blaming and profiling. It is deemed perfectly appropriate behavior to spy on one another and police one another and report on one another. Such behaviors exist most strongly in closed and undemocratic and fascist societies.

The university report does not mention the root cause of the alarm. That package became "suspicious" because of who was holding it, who put it down, who drove away. Me.

It was poetry, I kept insisting to the state policeman who was questioning me on the phone. It was poetry I was putting out to be recycled.

My body exists politically in a way I can not prevent. For a moment today, without even knowing it, driving away from campus in my little beetle, exhausted after a day of teaching, listening to Justin Timberlake on the radio, I ceased to be a person when a man I had never met looked straight through me and saw the violence in his own heart.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Last October I had the chance to read my work as part of the Fifth International Festival of Poetry in El Salvador. Although I had sent a number of poems to the Fundacion Poetas for translation, their translator managed to accomplish only one. When I arrived, I had only one poem which could be read on our tour (12 readings in 5 days!) But I was surrounded by wonderful Latin American poets with whom I spent every waking hour (along with poets from France, Spain, Italy, Nigeria, and elsewhere) and this convivial bunch set out to remedy the problem. It was like a dream to be present while other poets, none of whom would settle for approximation or consent to lyrical, musical, or idiomatic collapse, worked on my poems, asking me questions from time to time, arguing with one another over nuance and emphasis. We worked in the hotel, in cafes, bouncing along over rutted roads in the back of a beat-up van. Here are the results, several of which are coming out in magazines in Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Costa Rica.


Un hombre carga su puerta,
la puerta de su casa,
cuando la guerra termine
regresará a casa.

Adonde la colgará
en sus bisagras
y le pondrá llave
cuando se trata de acordar
de la palabra para la bienvenida.

Si su casa ya no está
cuando regrese
la forjará desde la nada
con esta puerta.

Si no puede regresar
la puerta se acordará
y el resto de la casa
así la podrá construir
otra vez en otra parte.

Y si no puede seguir
su puerta puede ser una paleta
para su descanso, una tijera
para cargarlo, sombra para el sol,
su escudo.


La trucha en la orilla del rio
sabe donde está el rio;

el zorro en la trampa
sabe el tiempo,

pero el hombre o una mujer
sólo conocen la historia

que el temor o la esperanza cuentan
y con frecuencia escogen mal.

Ninguna hormiga entrará
a otra hormiguero

ni una abeja a otra colmena,
y el cuervo en la copa de

un roble muerto
Sabe de que' lado está,

pero un hombre o una mujer,
guiados por mentirosos,

van a discutir, calmadamente,
quién debe cavar la fosa,

y si descuartizar
a los bebes de los vecinos

antes o después
es una mejor leccion.

Una ardilla rasca profundo
en el tronco hueco;

la osa regresa
a su oscurecida cueva,

pero un hombre o una mujer,
henchidos de sangre,

desde el fondo de la historia, dormidos,
sueñan con la paz

y despertando dicen:
la paz es un sueño.

Un conejo puede estremecerse,
pero sólo por un tiempo;

un gorrión común
conoces las estaciones,

pero un hombre o una mujer
solo quieren una cancion, un poema,

profesar un religión
que nadie que ha conocido el bien,

aunque sea sólo una vez...
nunca estará completamente perdido.

tr. Norbert-Bertrand Barbe and Andres Norman Castro


El cucu solitario
en la oscuridad ensaya
durante 59 minutos
su acto.

tr. Alejandro Marré



Hay una ciudad de cristal y dinero allá afuera,
y se acerca con las noticias de cada día.
Hombres mentirosos sin identificar
interpretan las mismas viejas imágenes,
los pies sangrantes de los refugiados,
las manos sangrantes de los soldados.
Aquí viene alguien, no es un vecino,
y trae un cuadernillo y una calculadora.
¿En dónde crecerán los niños y las rosas?
¿En dónde nos haremos viejos?

Porqué las madres le dicen a sus hijos
que no pongan cara fea
o se quedarán así,
yo tengo menos miedo.

Cuando los padres limpian las caras de sus hijos
con esos pañuelos olorosos a sudor,
ellos difícilmente los olvidarán,
y cuando lo aprendo
yo soy más feliz como padre
y más tranquilo como hijo.

Y los cuerpos de los amantes
hacen rápidamente un nudo
lo suficientemente bueno
como para reparar la sed.

tr. Alejandro Marré, Andres Norman Castro


En el Paraíso tienes que prometer
de nunca olvidar
que estás en el cielo.

En el Infierno tienes que prometer
de nunca olvidar
querer estar en otra parte.

En la Tierra tienes que prometer
de nunca olvidar
que no hay promesas.

tr. Belkys Arredondo Olivo, Mario Noel Rodríguez


¿ Por qúe? preguntó Lázaro.
¿ Por qúe me devuelves?
¿ Hay paz aquí?
¿ Estamos ahora en el tiempo de la Justicia?

Sueño de esas cosas
en la oscuridad, en la tierra.
Es mi trabajo, hermano.
Déjame hacerlo.

tr. Norbert-Bertrand Barbe, Nicola Licciardello


Aparta tanto de la certidumre de los mapas
como del pánico al perderse repentinamente

es un lugar abierto como una gran plaza
en una ciudad antigua de calles tortuosas.

Tú lo sabes. Una o dos veces lo hemos encontrado
justo cuando íbamos a rendirnos.

Si nos separamos por cualquier razón
y primero lo encuentras, espérame allí.

Hagas lo que hagas no des la vuelta,
y si primero lo encuentro, esperaré por ti.

tr. Norbert-Bertrand Barbe, Alejandro Marré, y Belkys Arredondo Oliva

Monday, April 09, 2007

“Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example-
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.”

— Nazim Hikmet

Some months ago I was part of an extraordinary evening at the Boston Public Library, sponsored by PEN New England, at which writers and actors read works by writers who had been denied entry into the United States. The purpose of the evening was to point out what beauty and power is lost when the voices of those deemed “undesirable” by our government are silenced. I had the great honor of reading three poems by the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. Hikmet spent more than half his adult years as a prisoner, in and out of prison solely by virtue of the vicissitudes of Turkish politics. A good resource on Hikmet is:

The entire evening is available as a streaming video on the MACLU website:

The poems are my versions of translations by Randy Blasing and Taner Baybars.


I stand in the advancing light,
my hands hungry, the world beautiful.

My eyes can't get enough of the trees--
they're so hopeful, so green.

A sunny road runs through the mulberries,
I'm standing at the window

of the prison infirmary
but I can't smell the medicines--

I think carnations
must be blooming nearby.

It's this way:
being captured is beside the point,
the point is not to surrender.


You're like a scorpion, my brother,
you shrink and hide in the dark.
You're like a sparrow, dear brother,
always in a sparrow's flutter.
You're like a clam, closed, like a clam,
my brother, smug, content,
And brother, you are frightening
as the mouth of an old volcano.

Not one, not five, no --
unfortunately, you number millions.
You're like a sheep, my brother:
when the cloaked drover raises his stick,
you quickly rejoin the flock
and run, almost proud of yourself,
right to the slaughterhouse.

You are the strangest creature on this earth —
even stranger than the fish
that couldn't see the ocean for the water.
All the oppression in the world is thanks to you.
If we are hungry, tired, covered with blood,
and after all this time,still being crushed
like grapes to make wine,
the fault is yours —
I can hardly bring myself to say it,
but most of the fault, my dear brother, is yours.


I hope I don’t sound like I’m boasting,
but I’ve gone like a bullet
through ten years of captivity,
and if we discount the occasional liver pain,
nothing has changed, not my heart, not my head.

So send me books with happy endings:
where the plane with broken wings lands safely,
and the doctor leaves the operating theatre
with a big smile on his face;
where the blind boy sees the light again,
and just before the partisan is about to die
before the firing squad, he is rescued and freed;

where the letter I’ve been waiting for
for ten long years
arrives amid a clamor of birds,
and my poems sell by the millions;

where lovers meet, wed, and celebrate in joy,
and no one is deprived
of bread, roses, sunshine, and liberty.

Send me books with happy endings
because I believe, even in here, that
one day our great adventure will end happily.

* Rubai is the name of the prison where Hikmet wrote this poem.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

I sent this short poem to several newspapers as a letter to the editor but none chose to print it. Is that because I explicitly call bigots bigots? Or do they just shy away from verse? I don't pretend it's a terrific poem, but there are some times when you want the broad brush and the bold statement. As Louis MacNeice said, in 1941, "All poems are not written the same way. Critics forget this. There are occasions for flatness and hyperbole, for concentration and diffuseness, for regular and irregular form, for both the unusual and the obvious, for uplift and understatement." Anyway, I'll publish it here; maybe somebody will find it and stick it up on their bulletin board or refrigerator:


The bigots are building a ghetto again,
this time for the lovers they hate.
They want to change the constitution,
invoke the power of the state

to wall off anybody they find odd
with ready-made bricks made of words
left over from invoking law and God
last time to keep out “the coloreds.”

Their hatred is what I’m afraid of,
not my gay sisters and brothers.
True and false are the two kinds of love
and there aren’t any others.